‘South Park’s ‘Cat Orgy’ Is a Telling Character Study in the Form of a Bottle Episode

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‘Genie in a Bottle’ is a recurring feature where each week a different bottle episode (an episode set entirely in one location, often designed to save money) from a comedy series is examined

“They mostly come at night. Mostly.”

It should come as no surprise that a show that has been on as long, and experimented as much, as South Park has has tackled a bottle episode at some point in its run. While the show has consistently swung for the fences, and even approached a more serialized method of storytelling in its recent seasons, their brush with the insularly structured bottle episode occurred through a rather interesting circumstance. South Park’s third season was still long before it had transitioned into the much more aware juggernaut that it is now. There are plenty of “Classic South Park” staples going on here like Cartman chastising his Kitty or insisting that people “respect his authoritah”, but in spite of it being a simple beast at this point, “Cat Orgy” still marks one of the earlier examples of Trey Parker and Matt Stone getting creative and mixing things up.

“Cat Orgy” is technically one part of a thematic three-part story that’s all occurring during the same night when a rare and dazzling meteor shower is happening. When combined with, “Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub” and “Jewbilee”, they almost feel like three separate bottles going on at once, with our core cast being divided up amongst them. The member of the crew that we’re left with in this “third” of the story is Cartman, who finds himself being babysat by the insufferable Shelly. South Park would later become well versed in abandoning its core cast in lieu of focusing on side characters and bizarre pair-ups (such as Oprah’s genitalia, or an underdog member of the lice species), but this is one of the first examples of them really flexing that muscle and seeing what they’re capable of. What follows is a thoroughly entertaining character study on the both of them, two very egocentric, id-driven characters who should probably never be left alone together.

The majority of the episode sees Cartman being trapped in this bottle by the dictator-like Shelly, and in spite of it being his home, he’s still eager for freedom and growing more miserable by the minute. There’s a basic hostage situation device that’s adopted early on as Cartman tries to figure out how to outsmart his captor and ultimately escape from his jail cell.

As Cartman schemes away and plots his exodus, the episode acts as an analysis on Cartman’s imagination and ultimately his loneliness. We see him creating friends via the Wild, Wild West (this-episode-is-from-1999 alert!) conduit – and his stuffed animals almost do fill the Stan, Kyle, and Kenny roles this week – as that very same imagination is stifled by being locked inside the house, and yet it’s also needed for him to get out. Cartman’s ever-growing, rampant imagination is one of the bedrocks of his character, and it’s great to see this situation force it out of him a little more. It’s the same rich topic that would be explored seasons later when Cartman “grows up” so to speak (and playing this episode and “1%” back-to-back would make for a fascinating double feature).

The episode makes smart use of the Cartman household too, moving each set piece and argument that Cartman and Shelly have into a different room of his home. It’s a sly way of showing off the house’s architecture as Cartman simultaneously plots on how to break free of it. In spite of the knowledge Cartman has, he’s still unable to break free, with really only his cat, Kitty, being the one that’s capable to escape. Even then Kitty still ultimately decides to return home, bringing her party back with her.

The final few minutes of the episode admittedly do see Cartman breaking free of his structure and roaming South Park a little bit. The only reason it works though is because his escape incorporates everything that’s been stewing inside of the bottle for the rest of the episode, showing the synthesis of this friendship and what has been born from it all. Cartman standing up for Shelly and helping her get confidence over her severely creepy 22-year-old boyfriend, Skyler, might be predictable, but it’s only made possible because her and Cartman have been forced to spend time together. Only when Cartman and Shelly have put aside their differences, bonded, and realized how similar they actually are is Cartman is allowed the agency needed to get out. It’s almost like the process has made them better by proxy… until they revert back to their normal selves, naturally.

“Cat Orgy” operates very symptomatically of classic bottle episodes where two people are at odds, then forced to be together, and in the process end up understanding each other more effectively, but this feels slightly different because of the unlikely pairing of Cartman and Shelly. Doing this very episode with Shelly and Stan would have worked just as well, with some integral sibling lessons and respect being learned in the process, but putting these two type-A personalities together is the much more inspired, rich story idea.

Besides, Stan would never, ever, ever be caught reenacting Wild, Wild West.